Fear & Loathing in the Teachers’ Lounge


 An opinion piece in yesterday’s NYT reminded me of something:  after 40 years, talk of teacher education makes me want to scream.

  So I think I will.

 Full disclosure:  I was a “teacher educator”.  Before that, I was a teacher.

 It may not be any coincidence that I am now a recovering academic, writer and composer.  But that’s another essay.

 Jal Mehta, the opinionator of the NYT article, is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which, in the arena of academia makes his voice much louder than mine.  In this case, I agree with him, and was happy to see his words in such a large forum.

 Here’s the quote that grabbed me:

            “…In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States.”

  I remember when I first became a teacher.  I had visions of the Teachers’ Lounge, that mysterious and elite preserve, visions of  stimulating discussions about wide-ranging issues of the day, intellectual concepts discoursed upon, shared confessions of personal aspirations beyond the classroom.

 Instead, amidst the sticky, half-empty Dr. Pepper cans, and the lingering cigarette fumes, there lay a cloud of fatigue, frustration, and cynicism.  This wasn’t everyone of course, and the more awake of us learned which break times to avoid, those times when the hard-core, hard-boiled tended to gather and take over our dreary little retreat.

The turf was particularly disputed, of course, in schools where the only air conditioners were in the lounge or the front offices, leaving both students and teachers to sit listlessly in stifling, sweaty, South Texas classrooms.  Guerilla tactics were often used to secure floor fans.  There were days when my students and I were most synchronized in purpose watching huge bumblebees swoop loopily across the classroom.

 Ah, the good old days.

  But I digress.  As usual.

  Ever optimistic, I thought the answer lay in higher education, and I went back to school for my Masters’.  I worked as a graduate assistant for a professor who one day decided to treat me to coffee in the Faculty Club.

 Wow.  Faculty Club at a small but prestigious university.  Now that was surely where I would find the intellectual stimulation I so yearned for.  All those brilliant profs I’d admired while slouching in the anonymous center regions of crowded lecture halls – they would be there, wittily holding forth on all sorts of philosophical matters.

 The topic of the day turned out to be crabgrass.

And I was ejected (and my hosting prof chastised) for polluting the sacred grounds with a mere grad student.

 I have known some absolutely brilliant teachers.  One or two I taught with.  A few I had the privilege of preparing for their teaching careers.  Along the way, I swear to you, there were dozens of decent, hard-working craftsmen and –women.  The couple of weirdos and possible-pervs tended to stand out, but they were the minute minority.  I suspect the statistical breakdown is about the same in any group, and can be represented by the bell curve.

 So, here begins my rant for the day.  Teaching conditions – for most teachers – have greatly improved since I walked into my first classroom in the ‘70’s.  Air conditioning.  Telephones.

But – and Professor Mehta’s article reinforces me here – teaching is hard damn work, done in conditions that are still too often taxing, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. 

Not to mention that now, in addition to spending all those years acquiring mastery of academic disciplines, and the combined survival skills of psychiatry, diplomacy, long-distance running, mind-reading, sanitation, nurse and time management, now we seem to be trending toward the expectation that teachers should also come fully armed and prepared to blow away little Johnny, with cold, keen-eyed aim, if push comes to shove.  All in a day’s work.

Because little Johnny still can’t read, but he has easy access to automatic weapons. 

So where are our best and brightest?  Maybe they’re too smart to go for that crap.

 I tried, very hard, to push my teacher-education students, to get them to expand their imaginations, to breed curiosity into decent, well-meaning young (and not so young) people, who, for the most part, sincerely wanted to dedicate their lives to a helping profession.

But too many were themselves already products of a system that rewards plodders.  I used to tell my students, if you want your own students to learn, you have to model what it is to be a learner.  You have to constantly demonstrate curiosity about the world around you.

I also warned them: if you teach your students to question, the first thing they will question is… you. 

 That is the scary and exhilarating part of teaching.  For me it was the whole point: to pry open young minds, if only an inch at a time, to watch the thrilling and challenging spectacle of dormant minds sputtering or leaping into action.   It’s what kept me in the biz for 30 years.  It’s the only thing I miss.

Far easier to follow the curriculum guides and teach to the test. That’s what gets teachers rewarded these days.

Not hard to see why the best and brightest would be bright enough to flee from a career like that, where not only will they be overworked and poorly paid, but will be drowned in a sea of negative expectations and bureaucratic hamstringing from all sides.

 I loved teaching, loved prodding students out of their intellectual comfort zones, loved connecting with them, helping them understand complex concepts or develop the skills to work through problems in their lives.  My years at the college level in teacher education were the most enjoyable of a long career.   But my college students used to ask me, “don’t you ever think about going back into public school teaching?”

I (diplomatically) never answered them honestly back then, but my response hasn’t changed after many years out of the biz:  

 Hell, no.



As always, I invite my readers to visit my website  and my Youtube channel.

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